Why Fantasy Sucks

I have a friend who is a literary sort. Like me, he’s plodding through the cannon, looking for those books that like two hits of acid subtly shift how you see everything. When he gets tired of reading literary novels and short story collections, he picks up a palate cleanser. In his case, it’s a Star Trek novelization or some other space opera. In my case, I read a fantasy novel—a sprawling mess of a book with a hundred characters in a thousand pages—with something ridiculous on the cover like a guy dressed up like an extra from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat playing chess with a sphinx.
My friend and I are constantly giving each other shit for our reading tastes. At a party, I’ll say something like, “You should’ve worn your Starfleet officer’s uniform.” And he’ll say, “Only if you bring your wizard staff.” When we’re bored, we’ll argue over which genre, sci-fi or fantasy, is better.
We met in college, in a 400 level English course called Studies in Epic Fantasy, a class entirely devoted to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We both thought it would be an easy A, but all I remember was writing forty pages of essays about hobbits. I’d never read The Lord of the Rings before. I’d been putting it off for years. Unless you count Beowulf, J.R.R. Tolkien started the fantasy genre, a genre that got me interested in reading when I was a kid. My friend and I were creative writing majors, simultaneously reading Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It was a quarter of minimalists and maximilists.
My friend had a good argument about why most fantasy sucks. It’s turgid, has too many characters, and is too long. Most fantasy novels seem like they could be about ideas, but they never really are. They could be about characters, but they always tend to be tropes. I can think of at least twenty bestselling fantasy novels with main characters who are misunderstood and weak in the beginning and strong at the end. The main problem with most modern fantasy is that the author gets carried away with world-building the same way Charles Dickens felt the need to describe the trees in a secondary character’s front yard.
Since it’s the template for all modern fantasy, let’s use The Lord of the Rings as an example. The trilogy is eleven hundred pages long.

1000 pages If you cut out all the extraneous characters, the ones milling about in the background, you’d be able to cut a hundred pages.

800 pages Two hundred more if you trimmed out the back story of every tertiary character, and most of the ancient history.

700 pages If you cut the first hundred pages of “throat-clearing,” where absolutely nothing happens.

350 pages If you cut out most of the adjectives, adverbs, and physical description of unimportant places, you’d lose another three hundred and fifty pages.

You’d end up with a novel instead of a trilogy where the same events happen, and by abandoning the Dickensonian maximilism, you’d have a more accessible book. I asked my friend what if modern fantasy abandoned its Victorian model? He said he might read one.

22 Comments

  • TJ Fuller says:

    Does fantasy have their crossover writer, respected by people who don’t get into the genre, their Philip K. Dick, if you will?

    With what little experience I have of The Fellowship of The Ring, I have to agree with you. It’s during the history and world building when I lose the most interest.

    • Asa says:

      There are tons of classes, papers, and conferences that analyze Tolkien as literature, so maybe he’s one?

    • Scott Eubanks says:

      Not yet, TJ. Philip K. Dick started writing novels of ideas about drugs, totalitarianism, and humanity. They just happened to take place in the future. Fantasy writers are still enthralled by swordsmanship and elves having sex. Most fantasy I’ve read deals with violence and the withholding of violence, which sells.

      • Tiffany says:

        Kelly Link is pretty well known in literary circles. Have you tried Terry Pratchett? He writes fantasy satire. I’ve read some short stories in Realms of Fantasy that would qualify. Charles deLint has a book of short stories that I’d say are crossover. Robin McKinley’s “Deerskin.” I like Robin McKinley for a few others as well. The Sword of Truth series is fiercely idea driven, but I wouldn’t suggest literary in the least- it’s more like a political hammer including repeated strikes. I rather like epics and world building, but I’d suggest Robin Hobb does more than that in her three connected trilogies. Tad Williams (although he’s also a scifi crossover) is one of my favorites. Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series: intricate relationships, evolution of characters, and exploration of political and cultural ideas- lot of history, but the history is part of the story and relevant to the degree that history is relevant in real world stories. Fantasy has the oldest roots in literature existent- fairy tales and myth anyone? Iliad and the Odyssey? What Tolkien did was introduce the world building including elaborate histories, and maybe we can credit him for bringing fantasy back to recognition as adult popular literature.

  • Asa says:

    I’m a big Tolkien fan. A few years ago a friend sent me the short, short version of the trilogy which goes something like this:

    Gandalf: This ring is evil; we must destroy it by throwing it into Orodruin in Mordor.
    Frodo: Wow, that’s really far to travel. It will take ages to get there.
    Gandalf: Nah, I know a couple of eagles, they’ll fly us on their backs and we’ll be back by tea time.
    The End.

    It’s not the same without all the world building and back story. :-)

    • Marcus says:

      That’s fantastic. Is there a collection of these miniaturized works? Can we take all relatively famous 400+ page books and turn them into 45 words or less?

      Then we’ll anthologize them and sell them as Sparknotes for people with even shorter attention spans.

      Somebody start working on the Russians!

  • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

    See, Lord of the Rings is awesome just for its potential humor, like so: http://beastybunny.com/lotr/funstuff/secretemails.htm

    But then again, I enjoy some fantasy, and some of what might be crossover. For example, is Wicked fantasy or literary fiction with fantastical elements? In either case, I love it (though not the sequels).

  • Terrance Owens says:

    I think good fantasy relies on one thing: a suspension of disbelief. And all that you cut is working toward that goal. Fantasy needs to operate in a fantasy world and the writer needs to invent that.

  • Shawn Vestal says:

    It’d been quite a while since I read the Lord of the Rings, but I loved it and never felt for a second that it was too long. In fact, its length was an advantage in my mind — reading it both as a teenager and later as an adult — because it felt like an entire world (as terry notes) and i was enjoying being in that world.

    I think it’s sometimes deceptive to feel that something long and intricate can be cut into something better. Doesn’t mean it’s not too long or full of “unnecessary” passages, but in my experience as an editor and writer, extreme cutting often removes something undefinable — rhythm, style, context — that must then be repaired somehow.

    • Scott Eubanks says:

      I agree with what you’re saying about the scope and veracity of a world being ruined by unnecessary cutting, but don’t all books build worlds? Don’t many of them accomplish it in a more succinct way? The Tom Bombadil section in the first book does nothing. (Although Eddie Izzard should’ve played him in the movies, as long as he was allowed to do his own make-up) They were great books, and I don’t really believe that you could slice them down to 350 pages without the whole thing exsanguinating. But The Lord of the Rings is an example of what I want to point out, what’s been plaguing fantasy for too long–Most of them are bloated and have sacrificed character at the alter of world-building.

      • Jesse says:

        It doesn’t do nothing, it just does something you don’t like.

        Every detail in a book DOES NOT have to contribute to the glorious climax. Tolstoy could have cut 1,000 pages from Anna Karenina and created a short story in which Anna cheats on her husband, realizes Vronsky’s a tool, and throws herself in front of a train. Are you arguing that that would be better? I know you don’t mean too. LoTR is a journey, not a point, a remark, or a moral.

      • steven says:

        fun fact…tom bandali will be remembered while your favorite books are long forgotten

  • Renfro says:

    Be careful as you work your way through “the cannon.” Don’t wanna still be dallying around when it fires.

    Also, how is character “sacrificed at the altAr of world-building”? Seems to me that world-building actually adds layers to dimensions like character & setting, at the expense of a strong narrative thrust.

  • Larsdono says:

    The reason fantasy trends toward sucking, I think, has less to do with wordiness and more to do with the fact that fantasy authors tend not to take advantage of the medium. Fantasy that focuses on action and elf sex doesn’t do anything a movie can’t do, and why read (typically turgid, badly written) action when I can watch, or for that matter play, it? Authors like Nabokov, Faulkner, and Dostoevsky do things in books that could only be done in books (regardless of film adaptations, which when based on complex works are seldom more than pale representations). Until fantasy as a whole starts focusing on the artistry and texture of prose, as pretentious as that sounds, as opposed to treating it like a means to an end, fantasy will mostly be trash.

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  • Candy says:

    Fantasy Rumor! A fantasy coming in 2012 featuring a black girl. A real fantasy that is. Heard about it on Youtube. If anyone heard about it, post!

    • Pat says:

      I heard about it on Yahoo, and that she wields a massive green sword. It’s too hard to believe. If it is true I cannot wait to find it.

  • GroKonar says:

    Fantasy is offensive nowadays, because authors who write it got literate through reading authors who got literate through reading authors who got literate through reading Tolkien, who got literate by reading actual LITERATURE, with complex syntax and seldom used words. For example, Tolkien wrote beautiful poems. Can any living fantasy writers even properly count syllables?
    With each generation, fantasy books become dumber and dumber, and the language gets poorer. I doubt George RR Martin or Robert Jordan read any “good” literature in the last thirty years.

    It’s a damn shame because it’s a beautiful genre and allows for all kinds of literary devices.

    • steven says:

      your favorite books are forgotten while game of thrones sales….sorry but popularity or lack of it is proof that literary fiction is awful and only liked cause of pretentious shit faces

  • Ghatanathoah says:

    I’ve read some fantasy novels that sound a lot like the “edited LOTR” you described at the end. I’m not sure they’d count as “modern,” they came out in the 50s, but they’re stylistically similar to LOTR and less than 200 pages each. Here are a few:

    “Three Hearts and Three Lions” by Poul Anderson
    “The Tritonian Ring” by L. Sprague de Camp
    “The Goblin Tower” by L. Sprague de Camp

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